The triggering of Article 50 marks the symbolic enactment of Britain's EU referendum result and the start of what is likely to be the most complex negotiation the UK has ever undertaken.
So far, the governments of the other 27 EU member states have been strongly united around two basic positions: that there should be no ‘pre-negotiations’ before the formal triggering of Article 50, and that Britain should not be allowed to ‘cherry-pick’ the benefits of EU membership while avoiding the costs. This consensus has proved impressively durable in the eight months since the referendum. They want a constructive deal but they also want to prevent Brexit from undermining the integrity of the union.
But what do European publics think about Brexit and the negotiations? As part of a new research project on the future of Europe – involving a nationally representative study of what citizens think in 10 European states – we examined attitudes to Brexit.
In broad terms, European publics seem to support their leaders in wanting a good relationship with the UK but thinking that the EU should not compromise on fundamental principles in pursuit of this. That said, Brexit is widely seen as also having weakened the European Union.
First, we asked people about how the EU should approach the negotiations. EU leaders argue that the core freedoms of the EU’s single market are non-negotiable – they firmly reject the idea that Britain might be able to enjoy benefits without obligations or full compliance with the rules. But do the public back this view?
Respondents were given three options: (1) the EU should keep the UK as close as possible to the EU, even if that means making compromises on its core principles; (2) the EU should try to maintain a good relationship with the UK but it should not make any compromise on core principles; and (3) the EU should not compromise at all with the UK even if it damages the relationship.
By far, the most popular response, chosen by 65 per cent, was for the EU to try to maintain a good relationship with the UK but that it should not make any compromise on its core principles. A further hard core of 17 per cent felt that the EU should not compromise at all with the UK even if this damaged the relationship – meaning that a combined total of 82 per cent are instinctively opposed to striking a compromise with the UK which undermines the EU’s principles. Less than one-fifth (18 per cent) backed the idea of keeping the UK as close as possible even if this meant a fundamental compromise.
There are important differences across countries. Unsurprisingly, support for making no compromises with the UK is strongest in France (25 per cent) and Germany (19 per cent). Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Belgium and Austria are all slightly more likely than the average to back the idea of trying to maintain a good relationship with the UK but not making any compromise on core principles (see table). Meanwhile, the states that are most supportive of keeping the UK as close as possible regardless of compromises on core principles are Hungary, Greece and Poland, although in none of these states is this a majority view.
Second, we asked people whether or not Brexit has weakened the EU (we exclude UK respondents from these figures). Overall, 57 per cent feel that the EU has been weakened – either slightly or greatly – by Britain’s vote to leave (see figure below).
Given the fact that the vote was a rejection of the process of European integration and that no country had voted to leave in the past, it is perhaps unsurprising that majorities view Brexit negatively. But Brexit is seen as having greatly weakened the EU by fewer than one in five Europeans. In fact, more than double that number (33 per cent)believe Brexit will have no significant impact on the EU.
Despite perceptions of Britain as an awkward partner whose exit might make deeper integration easier, just 6 per cent of the public feel that the vote for Brexit has strengthened the EU. Despite occasional suggestions to the contrary, there appears to be no significant sentiment among the public that the EU will be stronger with Britain outside.
Again, there are significant variations across countries. The states most likely to feel that Brexit has weakened the EU are Hungary (74 per cent), Greece (73 per cent), Poland (69 per cent) and Spain (67 per cent). In contrast, the states least likely to think that Brexit has weakened the EU are France (46 per cent), Austria (51 per cent) and Germany (52 per cent). However, in no country does the number who feel the EU has been strengthened by Brexit reach more than 10 per cent.
These results have important implications. First, they show that EU leaders are broadly supported by their electorates in adopting a pragmatic but firm line with the UK. European voters appear to share the concern of EU leaders that Brexit should not undermine the fundamentals of the EU. But Britain’s leaders should not be too discouraged; these results suggest there is a space in European public opinion for a reasonable and balanced deal – but Britain should not push too far or expect fundamental concessions. The UK government should be aware that EU leaders would likely face domestic opposition to a deal which is seen to compromise on core principles.
Second, Brexit has clearly added to a sense in Europe that the EU has been weakened and faces fundamental challenges. This is not news to European leaders who are contending with the remnants of the eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, Russian aggression in Ukraine, an American president who appears hostile to European integration and the prospect of a strong vote for the anti-EU Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential elections. But it is notable that publics who are more likely to view Brexit as weakening the EU (Hungary, Greece and Poland) are also most likely to prioritize a good relationship with Britain regardless of the compromises involved. Some EU leaders may take the opposite view: an EU already facing multiple challenges cannot risk undermining itself in talks with Britain.
Third, it shows that at present differences among different national publics are not that vast. Across the EU, countries have different levels of economic exposure to a hard Brexit, and a variety of bilateral interests, priorities and concerns, from fishing rights to Gibraltar. Despite this, the fact that a majority in each country supports the same view suggests that these differences in interests are not (yet, at least) evident to the general public.
Fourth, it reinforces the asymmetry of the Article 50 talks. Britain enters with a public that remains sharply divided. EU leaders seem to have the instinctive backing of their voters. This all adds to the sense that the UK’s position, as the demandeur in the negotiations, is weaker.
Fifth, it suggests that public opinion may be a factor in shaping UK–EU relations in the long term. The withdrawal agreement under Article 50 will not require ratification by national parliaments, but any agreement on the future of relations – such as the deep free trade agreement the UK government hopes for –will almost certainly require a process of national and in some cases regional ratification across the EU. The difficulty of passing the EU-Canada trade agreement, which was held up by the parliament of Wallonia, illustrates how perilous the politics of trade has become.
The triggering of Article 50 marks the end of the beginning of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. But a deal that both matches Theresa May’s government’s ambitions, and which can be sold to publics on both sides, is still a long way off.
David Cutts, Professor of Political Science, University of Birmingham. Thomas Raines Research Fellow and Programme Manager, Europe Programme. Professor Matthew Goodwin Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme.